She went from middle class housewife to living on the streets to rubbing shoulders with A-list celebrities, and now her amazing life story is the subject of a new documentary.
Queen Mimi, a film by amateur Israeli filmmaker Yaniv Rokah, opens Friday in Santa Monica – the same quiet beachfront city where Marie “Mimi” Haist, now 90, has lived as a local celebrity for the past four decades.
Rokah, an aspiring actor at the time, was working as a barista at a coffee shop when he first met Mimi. Friends familiar with the area knew her as the “Queen of Montana” – Montana being the street address of the laundromat where Mimi had lived for over 20 years.
“I remember thinking, ‘Who is this older woman who’s working at a laundromat seven days a week? And why does she seem so happy all the time?’ ” the director tells PEOPLE. “Here I am struggling to make it in Hollywood, working at a coffee shop, and across the street there’s this ball of fire, like a pink-wearing, singing, dancing diva who turns out to be homeless.”
With her naturally outgoing personality, Mimi and Rokah became fast friends, and soon he began recording her on his iPhone 4 for a project that would end up consuming the next four years of his life.
Despite Mimi’s willingness to make new friends, she can be guarded about the details of her life. For a time, even acknowledging her homelessness was uncomfortable. But as their trust built over the years, Mimi began opening up.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Mimi spent most of her life as a suburban housewife and mother of two. Everything changed, however, when she divorced her unfaithful husband. According to the film, she lost her house in the divorce and began living in her van at the age of 50. When she ran out of money, the van was towed away and Mimi migrated to Santa Monica, where she lived on the streets for years.
One cold and rainy night, a sympathetic janitor got permission from his boss to let Mimi spend the night inside his laundromat. She agreed and for the next two decades she slept on a plastic lawn chair between washing machines at night, and earned tips folding clothes during the day.
Eventually, Rokah realized he was not the only aspiring actor to befriend the “Queen of Montana.” Zach Galifianakis met Mimi when he lived in Santa Monica in the late 1990s, before he hit it big in movies like The Hangover. Over the years, he’s taken Mimi to Hollywood parties and brought her as a date to red carpets. And through Galifianakis, Mimi also became close with Renée Zellweger.
“It never seemed like a big deal to her, so it didn’t seem like a big deal to me,” the director said of Mimi’s celebrity friends. Galifianakis was initially reluctant to participate in the documentary, fearing his friendship with Mimi could be misconstrued as a publicity stunt. Eventually, at Mimi’s behest, the comedian agreed to be interviewed, joking to Rokah at one point in the film, “We talk about sex, Mimi and I, and we laugh a lot.” He later adds, “It is my honor to know that woman.”
Mimi has since moved out of the laundromat and into a modest apartment, quietly paid for by Galifianakis. “I really love it. I have a place where I can sleep and arrange things, and it’s really heaven,” Mimi tells PEOPLE. “I still go to the laundromat every day to keep busy and people come in and say, ‘Oh you’re a star!’ ” she adds. People have even started coming to the laundromat to ask for autographs.
And while Mimi is enjoying the added attention, nothing excites her more than the opportunity to inspire other people down on their luck. “I always say yesterday’s gone, tomorrow isn’t here, you live now,” she says. “You can only live each day as it comes.”
Queen Mimi opens Friday at The Laemmle in Santa Monica.